The term “political correctness” or “PC” sprang into public view in the late 1980s in the controversy around Allan Bloom’s The
Closing of the American Mind. As a collocation, or fixed combination of words, “political correctness” has a parallel in “politically correct”. Together they approach 14 million Google hits.
But it’s a misleading phrase, and it’s now difficult to use it objectively or dispassionately. Politics has to do with managing and governance of an area. And the core meaning of “correct” is “consistent with the known or observed facts”. But “political correctness” now means one of two things: “language or behaviour which avoids being hurtful, discriminatory or offensive”; or “consistent with a particular ideology”, that ideology often being characterised by some commentators as at least liberal, or more often radical.
This year “PC” has been vilified in the pre-presidential shouting and heaving on the right of politics in the US, and the tone is becoming ever more strident. It is a great pity that this term has been so strongly radicalised and ideologised (I apologise for two ugly words, but they are appropriate). Because avoiding hurtful or discriminatory language is to be applauded. PC has helped to make us aware of language that can make people feel bad about themselves. We are much more aware of the possible negative effect of ethnonyms (names of people’s nations and races), or words based on age, gender, sexual preference, education, abledness and similar factors.
But this isn’t a matter of politics, except insofar as it involves the values of managing a society. And it should not be a matter of correctness, which implies a binary right/wrong judgment. We should be talking about something like “social considerateness”. It’s a matter of interacting with people with empathy and understanding.
But, perhaps prompted by the name itself, PC is now taken as an ideology, which is certainly political; it is associated principally with those to the left of centre. And it is taken as right/wrong, with penalties for those who fail to behave according to PC.
PC has given rise to attempts at controlling what we say, but there is a serious issue of how all that fits with freedom of speech.
And PC has placed out of bounds a whole range of good-humoured, whimsical or teasing uses of language between people who know each other and who appreciate a witty interchange of conversation.